Wives at War
I admit it. I like World War II stories, and there aren’t many romance novels set in that era. I guess the 1930s and 1940s aren’t far enough in the past to be truly “historical,” but they aren’t recent enough to be “contemporary.” And all too often they have tragic endings.
The Conway sisters Polly, Barbara (“Babs”), and Rose are married as the war threatens Britain, but they haven’t left their native Clydeside. Hardly the wild and romantic Highlands, industrial Glasgow, with its docks and shipyards, is a potential target for German bombing runs in 1940, as each of the sisters adjusts to the monumental changes in their way of life.
Babs, the middle sister, obtains a secretarial position in the Labour Department. She and her boss, Archie Harding, are responsible not only for finding work for the unemployed, but for making sure essential jobs are filled with qualified workers. Babs has already made other traumatic changes in her life: her husband Jackie is a corporal training in distant Cornwall to be a tank mechanic, and she has sent three of their four children to the relative safely of a farm owned by Dougie Giffard. Only baby April remains in Babs’ day to day care; she visits the others on Sundays.
Babs is truly one of the best-drawn heroines I’ve read in many a year. Determined, intelligent, clever, and as strong as any of us would probably hope to be in similar circumstances, she’s a woman I’d love to call a friend.
Polly, oldest of the three, lives in relative luxury in the mansion provided by her husband, the counterfeiter Dominic Manone. Dom absconded to New York with their children, though Polly doesn’t seem terribly stressed at the loss of her offspring. Of course, she has her consolations, and Dom hasn’t filed for divorce, so there’s always hope for some kind of reconciliation.
The youngest sister, Rose, has also obtained wartime employment. Deaf since childhood, she works in an ordnance assembly plant where her lack of hearing doesn’t prevent her doing exactly the same quality of work as her colleagues. But the other women are from a higher social class than Rose, who grew up in both a rougher neighborhood and a rougher time than the middle class wives she works with. Her husband Kenny, the policeman who doubles as a military security officer, would just as soon Rose stayed home, but she’s determined not only to do the work, but to fit in with her social betters.
Then into their already disrupted lives comes the American news photographer Christy Cameron, who is never, it seems, what he appears to be.
This is not on the surface an exciting, gripping, or intense book, and those who are looking for the high drama and adventure of a romance novel are likely to be disappointed. But Stirling’s skill as a writer is so superb that even this quiet novel kept me turning the pages until much later at night than I should have stayed up. The cast of characters is large in this sequel to Sisters Three, but as backstory is neatly and unobtrusively woven in, that Wives at War stands on its own very comfortably. The reader who hasn’t read the previous book won’t be confused starting here.
Instead, you’ll find yourself being drawn into the lives of these interesting and so very human women and the people around them, ordinary lives caught up in extraordinary times. Each of them will suffer a devastating loss, and each will learn a deep lesson about love before the book reaches its very satisfying – and as happy as it can be while the war is still in its early stages – ending.
Stirling built a long reputation as a storyteller with a focus on the working class in Scotland. Babs, Polly, and Rose are not so much thrust into “work” as a new experience – women of their class have always worked in one way or another – but they do experience a new kind of autonomy, even Rose who still comes home to Kenny each night. But they also know that no matter how much independence the war has given them, the old strictures still apply and they must function within those limits while perhaps building a foundation for the future.
Wives at War may not be the book to pick up when you’ve had a rough day of schlepping the kids to soccer and piano lessons or smiling at the boss you’d really love to kick in the tush, but it’s a solid and thoroughly enjoyable read for those times when you want something a little more meaty than the latest Regency romp or “How I Married the Billionaire Cowboy’s Daddy’s Secret Baby.”